With plenty of options returning for the Seminoles at defensive line and in the secondary in 2016, the linebacker unit will be the most untested on the defensive side of the ball when spring practice begins on Wednesday. Florida State's current roster has seven scholarship linebackers, a low number but not deficient to the point of ineptitude. However, that number is complicated by the fact that only two of those seven have played significant minutes at linebacker over the course of an entire season. Myriad injuries, suspensions, and other issues have kept many highly-touted linebacker recruits from reaching their full potential to this point at FSU. With the 2016 season on the horizon, the question becomes which of the remaining linebackers will rise to the occasion in spring practice as the 'Noles look to replace two inside linebackers, Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup, who graduated after last season.
We begin with the Seminoles' most consistent contributor who returns at inside linebacker from a season ago, Ro'Derrick Hoskins. Hoskins emerged in 2015 as a solid inside linebacker, appearing in 12 games and starting in six after an injury to Reggie Northrup caused him to miss a portion of the 2015 season. Hoskins was surprisingly effective in the minutes he played, finishing the year with 52 tackles (31 solo), the sixth-most on the team. He has shown sufficient capability in covering the middle of the field, stuffing the run, even getting into the backfield and will definitely be a key member of the linebacker corps in 2016.
Jacob Pugh is also someone who can be written in as a contributor in spring and going forward. The problem with this is that Pugh is an outside linebacker who fills the buck linebacker role on the team, serving more as a hand-in-the-turf player who lines up alongside the defensive lineman than a traditional, stand-up linebacker, where the Seminoles need more depth.
Beyond those two, the linebacker depth becomes significantly more questionable, at least for now. Redshirt junior Matthew Thomas is as talented as any linebacker on the team but has been unable to play due to either injuries or suspensions for a good portion of his career. He missed the first half of the 2014 season after a failed drug test at the 2013 National Championship, was ruled ineligible for the entire 2015 season after an unspecified violation of NCAA rules, and has also suffered ankle and shoulder injuries in his time at Florida State. Despite all the strife in his career, Thomas was back with the team during the recent fourth quarter drills and received praise from head coach Jimbo FIsher, who said, "He's doing really well. He had a great camp."
Along with Thomas, Tyrell Lyons may be depended upon for increased minutes and productivity. Lyons moved from defensive back to linebacker before last season and was a rotation player at linebacker before he tore his ACL in the week of practice leading up to the Boston College game, knocking him out for the remainder of the season. With spring practice just days away, Lyons' rehabilitation is still ongoing. Fisher said that he will be limited to participating in individual drills at the beginning of spring and will not be taking part in full practice, very much leaving his spring contributions in jeopardy.
Redshirt sophomore Delvin Purifoy and sophomore Sh'Mar Kilby-Lane are additional candidates for breakout years in 2016, just like Hoskins had in 2015. Both were highly regarded coming out of high school as four-star recruits but neither has played snaps at linebacker in their careers as Kilby-Lane served exclusively as a special teamer in his freshman year and Purifoy was a member of the scout team in 2015 following a tough injury. Nevertheless, a LB unit with many question marks could be the opening that these players need to make their mark and earn their spot in spring practice.
The true wild card in this linebacker group entering spring practice may be early enrollee Josh Brown. Brown, a consensus four-star recruit out of Charlotte, North Carolina, has been on campus since January and has been the name on every player's lips during fourth quarter drills. Although he was listed as an outside linebacker during his recruitment, Florida State linebackers coach Bill Miller was insistent at the Signing Day War Party that Brown is capable of playing at both outside or inside linebacker. For Brown, the timing of his arrival could not have been much better, as a good spring could put him in position to be a major contributor in his first year with the team, as Derwin James and Josh Sweat were a season ago.
The one bright side of Florida State's questionable linebacker depth is that the defensive scheme that the Seminoles use plays into this team's strengths well. A strong utilization of the money role, which incorporates additional defensive backs brought more into the linebacker area to help in the middle of the field, could go a long way toward hiding the issues that this unit may have early. Still, spring practice should be a fascinating time for the Florida State linebackers as there may be more spots and playing time up for grabs than at any other position. With three more talented linebackers arriving on campus over the summer, the spring gives the current Seminoles a head start on making a good impression.